I’ve been watching Dexter, and thinking about Thomas Blake, Catman in Gail Simone’s comic, Secret Six (DC, 2008-2011). With his tousled blond hair and predatory grin, Michael C. Hall would make an excellent candidate for any portrayal of Catman. But there are deeper resonances beyond physical resemblance.
Before joining the Secret Six, a team of mercenary supervillains, Catman was mocked by other villains as a loser—overweight, unfit, a poser with dyed-black hair tragicomically consumed by Monsieur Mallah*. But instead of disappearing into Mallah’s maw, Blake had traveled to Africa and experienced a “transformative event,” becoming physically powerful, a skilled tracker and member of a pride of lions (Villains United #1, DC: 2005).
Played by Michael C. Hall, Dexter Morgan, Dexter‘s protagonist, is a blood spatter analyst working for the Miami Police. He’s also a serial killer and uses his forensic skills to hunt serial killers who have escaped justice, satisfying what he calls his, “dark passenger,” his killing urge. Like Blake, Dexter has an affection for lions and considers himself a solitary hunter. But they both long to belong to a pride, a family. (In fact, family is a huge subtext in both Secret Six and Dexter).
Both Blake and Dexter are orphans who saw their mothers killed. And both had fathers who taught them how to kill. A big game hunter, Blake’s father taught Blake to kill what he loved in order to be strong—to “get off the teat” (Secret Six #21: 2010). As a child, Dexter was adopted by Harry Morgan, a police officer on the scene of his mother’s murder. Harry recognized signs that Dexter was a nascent serial killer and gave Dexter his moral center, Harry’s code, training him to avoid detection and kill only those who deserved it.
We never expect “monsters,” as Dexter calls himself, or supervillains to feel, let alone feel self-doubt and it builds sympathy to discover that they are human, tragically flawed and human. Blake and Dexter wonder whether they are good people. Dexter asks, “Am I a good person doing bad things?” Blake worries what he’s missing inside, “Something everyone else has. What’s our dialysis? What’s our treatment?” (#1). Blake and Dexter struggle with a desire to be heroes, whose killing stops crimes—crimes more horrific than their own. And they can check important heroic traits off their lists: punishing the wicked; rescuing the innocent; adhering to a code; and being loyal.
At a murder scene in a comic book shop, Dexter sees a poster for “The Dark Defender,” a superhero inspired by Dexter’s own killings. And he tries on the role of hero. As the series progresses, Dexter sees himself as a hero more and more, killing killers, saving the innocent, maybe even winning the girl. And, often, it does feel like justice.
Thomas Blake plays with the idea of being Batman. Catman is, after all, just a letter away. Blake seems to believe being a hero requires physical skill and being a good person, and he is a good person. After all, unlike Darkseid and the Joker, he worries over what he and the Secret Six do—strapping a serial killer to a gurney for a victim’s father to torture and providing encouragement when the man falters; leaving freed prisoners of a North Korean gulag to reach the Chinese border themselves. But Simone juxtaposes his soul-searching against Neo-Nazis terrorizing a witness to their convenience store robbery, which Blake ignores as he considers going straight. He soliloquizes about the sanctimony of superheroes while jacking a car after a night playing superhero in Gotham. Blake spends that night helping Bane and Ragdoll prevent kidnappings the Secret Six were contacted to perform, slumming as Batman, or as Ragdoll gussied up as the Girl/Boy Wonder, proclaims, “supervillains in drag” (#9).
Blake is kind of in drag, but more Drag King than Drag Queen. He’s the only member of the Secret Six who embraces superheroics–theme, cape, catmobile and all. Blake even has a secret identity, but doesn’t have anything to protect—no family, no other life, not even his pride. Deadshot Floyd Lawton has family to protect, but gives them code names. Scandal Savage is Scandal Savage. Jeanette is only Jeanette. Bane is always Bane. Ragdoll is far more Ragdoll than Peter Merkel. And King Shark is a Shark. It’s the romance—or possibly awesomeness—of being Catman that appeals to Blake.
Like Dexter, Blake recognizes a code’s importance. Heroes have codes. But where Dexter—like Batman—actually has one, Blake is enamored again by the idea rather than the content. He believes in loyalty to the Six, until he betrays them in favor of his own needs. Or loyalty, until the code is superceded by a new one, say, the importance of keeping his word, even if it means handing slavers building an island prison an unconscious Wonder Woman as demon fodder (#12).
That island prison makes Blake’s self-deception very apparent. Slave-built, it’s meant to house every criminal in the world and to inspire the world to embrace slavery. If that vision doesn’t bring out the hero in him, the prison itself should worry the criminal in him. But he sees nothing in common between himself and society’s “failures. Its murderous outcasts” (#11). Instead he focuses on keeping his word—until he switches sides and joins his team mates, Scandal Savage, Jeannette and Bane in freeing prisoners.
No wonder Blake can’t understand Batman’s immutable rule: No killing. Instead, he believes that Batman is a hypocrite, asking, during a confrontation, if Batman had ever been tempted to drop the Joker off a roof. He attempts to erase the differences between them based solely on temptation and intention. At the same time, Thomas is disappointed to discover that Batman is human, saying, “Man, somehow I can’t see you eating a burrito on duty. It humanizes you. Not sure I like that.” (#2)
As if Batman’s humanity is hypocrisy.
Blake needs Batman to be more than human because Blake is only human, a child who saw his mother shot down in front of him. He believes it is easy for heroes like Batman to do the right thing, making Bake’s intentions—his desire to do good, his belief that he is a good person despite being a victim of circumstance—paramount to him. If things had been different, Catman would be like Batman, too, because Blake believes he really wants to be.
Except when he doesn’t.
*What is it with DC and gorillas eating human meat?
Carol Borden wrote this piece as a sort of unspoken conversation with Colin Smith of Too Busy Thinking About My Comics. She is also very sad that Secret Six has been canceled. She likes lions, too.
This is a fine essay. I knew I liked Catman, and I liked Simone’s writing of him. It’s just I didn’t quite understand what she was doing with him. This piece really goes into what makes him tick.
I think I fell, in your terms, for the romance of Catman, and thus I found it hard to understand when he was acting in an unheroic way.
thank you for the comment and the kind words, Figserello. i’m glad the piece could be helpful. in a way, i was writing it to try and understand catman myself. i am very fond of him and i really want him to be a hero, but i would be so disappointed every time he did something unheroic.
i don’t know if you read the recent Birds of Prey (19) where he appears, but i found that interesting, too. it seemed that once again, he was fooling himself–but this time about the impossibility of change–at the same time that he was doing something really messed up.
Great essay, Carol.
I think you’re right on the money about Gail Simone’s exploration of heroism in Secret Six, and especially that supremely awesome issue #9.
It’s pretty much the only mainstream comic series I’d spend my own money on – such a shame that it will be coming to an end for the foreseeable.
Also, I clearly need to get into Dexter now. There’s nothing like coming late to a TV party…
thank you, matt. Secret Six is currently the only comic that i follow monthly. i follow Criminal whenever i realize it’s started again, but it’s not really monthly. on one hand, i’m sad to see Secret Six go. on the other, i’m relieved i don’t have to fear for how they are rebooted.
i myself came late to the Dexter tv party. now i’m all caught up and have to wait for the new season. so i didn’t come late enough.
thanks for commenting!
DC gorillas also talk and commit crimes. Is eating meat that big a stretch?
Great essay, BTW!
eric– not so much a stretch as a significant sample of homme-eating apes worth pondering.
i’m glad you liked the piece, and thanks for taking the time to comment!
This was an intriguing and insightful essay. Thank you very much for writing it.
I’m glad you found it so. Thanks!